Does the Bible Teach that the Earth is Flat?


(Jay Nelsestuen) #1

Hi folks.

I’ve written a sort of introductory article attempting to succinctly answer the question, “Does the Bible teach that the earth is flat?” I wanted to see if any of you would like to read it and share your thoughts with me.

The article can be found here.

Thanks for your time.

Blessings,
Jay


(Jay Nelsestuen) #2

Also, I directed the article to conservative evangelicals who have either never thought about it, or who are young earth creationists. It ought to rustle some jimmies in the circles that I run in.


(George Brooks) #3

@AdCaelumEo

Jay,

Your illustration of the Earth as Cosmos has been seen on these pages several times.

I think you have worded the situation very concisely:

While the Bible does not teach the Earth is Flat, it does not clearly discuss the real nature of the Earth and its place in the Universe.

It is this ambiguity that led to the sincere revival in the Victorian era of Flat Earth Society.

While they were a tiny slice of the world’s Christian community, their rise shows that the Bible can be used to justify very foolish world views.

The second thing to consider is what would have happened to Western Civilization if, for whatever reason, the Flat Earth zealots HAD seized control of Western governments and educational centers!?
.
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The link below is for the originator of the Victorian movement…
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(Jon Garvey) #4

Hi Jay

I agree with your assessment that what the biblical writers had in their mind’s eye as they wrote about the world was the received understanding of their culture, and that this is entirely irrelevant to the truth of the divine affirmation.

What I am less sure about is the actual shape of that conception. George rightly says that modern flat-earthism is a 19th century invention, pretty well all educated Christians (with 2 interesting exceptions) having followed Greek speherical-earth cosmology from the start of the Christian era.

But it’s also true that the generic “ANE 2-tier model” you illustrate in your article is a nineteenth century invention too, apparently based on little except garbled conglomerations of what ANE texts they had.

My own feeling is that, whilst the the theological themes in Genesis 1 are the key issue, what cosmology is included is more phenomenological than anything, referring to very little in the way of abstruse conceptualisations at all.

If you’re interested I tried to think through Genesis 1 phenomenologically, without imposing a pre-existing model and seeking to avoid conceptions based on my own scientific knowledge, and came up with this, as food for thought.


(Christy Hemphill) #5

I think this is one of the key issues, and where you get into sticky situations when you have to uphold a strict form of inerrancy (and by that I mean holding to the more explicit parts of the Chicago Statement, not a general commitment to “the Bible is true and authoritative in all it affirms and teaches”). At what point do you have a right or responsibility to question the biblical authors’ mistaken impressions? If it’s totally fine that they were flat out wrong about some things in science, is it also totally fine that they were wrong about some things in sociology? (slavery, women as property, marriage dynamics) or religion (there were many inferior gods, among whom Yahweh was supreme, a territorial, tribal concept of God who condoned war in his name)? If the biblical authors can be wrong because of their worldview or cultural constructs, when does (as Kenton Sparks puts it) the Bible itself “stand in need of redemption”? These are the kinds of questions that your concessions tend to lead to, and why people who are whole-heartedly committed to strict inerrancy get hives when you start saying things like what I quoted above.


(Jon Garvey) #6

But the world is flat - we just know now that it curves round on itself in 3 dimensions. The universe does something like that in 4 dimensions, only that’s a bit beyond most of our experience to describe, so most of us (if we’re honest) describe the universe as a sphere.


(Christy Hemphill) #7

And in many cultures it is equally obvious that women are inferior in ways that can easily be explained and described. I’m not sure I’m following your point. Or maybe you weren’t responding to me?


(Jon Garvey) #8

Christy

I was trying to suggest that for the Bible writers to have a conception of the world as flat may have nothing to do with questions of inerrancy, but simply with a different frame of reference.

If the Bible writers are describing the world they experience, rather than the shape some cosmological theory suggests, then to describe it as flat is accurate enough. Certainly in a small country like the UK - about the size of the world experienced by the Bible writers - I habitually have no concept at all of moving across the surface of a globe when I travel, and would consider it no error to say that three towns lay “on a straight line”.

As a modern, if I fly to Mexico or Australia I’m very aware of having to modify my conception to accommodate that flying in a straight line at 35,000 feet will eventually bring me back to where I started, but the essentail experience of the world is that ground is “down”, sky is “up” and I have to go “along” to get to see you.

So I don’t think the Bible writers had any more reason to consider, beyond that phenomenology, what the boundaries of the world looked like than I ever trouble myself with how the curvature of space-time affects what photographs of early galaxies look like.

It may be that Jay, accepting the nineteenth century “bubble” version of ANE cosmology, believes they did have a concept of shape of “the whole world in its context”, but if so I would still go along with his belief that it is quite compatible with biblical inerrancy - I don’t think that the Chicago Statement was ever conceived as a Literalist Fundamentalist document, however it is interpreted by literalists or their detractors.

Divine accommodation to the ordinary mind has been part of the doctrine of biblical infallibility since at least William Tyndale’s time. Why, the Bible is even written for women to have read to them…:slight_smile:


(Jay Nelsestuen) #9

From your article:

The separation of waters by something stretched out is the function of this “expanse”. The upper waters are clouds, and the lower become seas.

Did the ancients know that clouds were made of water vapor? Can we know that they did or didn’t? Why the word for “water” here the same word describing the waters below, which are clearly not made of vapor, but are liquid? Can it be said that the author had two different definitions of the word “water” in mind?

Just my immediate thoughts.

– Jay


(Jay Nelsestuen) #10

Christy, you raise a genuine concern of many people. I’ve heard it often, and I sympathize with it. Basically, if they were wrong about one thing, what else could they have been wrong about? Were they wrong only about cosmology?

Trust me, I’m still wrestling with all of this, and attempting to do so while defending inerrancy. Sociology and those other things you mentioned are things I haven’t even had time to consider, but will eventually, I suppose. If I get to the point where inerrancy is in shambles and I’m left with the most consistent reading of the Bible, then so be it. But for now, I’d like to preserve whatever conservative tendencies I had before I jumped ship. :slight_smile:

– Jay


#11

Here again, a correct understanding of the Hebrew word ERETZ makes a huge difference. ERETZ refers to the land, country, nation, or even particular regions (such as specifically named wildernesses in the Exodus.) And is the land, especially “the circle of the ERETZ/earth”, everything one sees when looking to the horizon in all directions, truly flat? For all practical purposes in non-mountainous, non-hilly areas: yes. In general, that disk of land we observe when looking in all directions deviates only a few inches per mile from a perfectly flat plane. So by the usual standards of approximation employed in human language, the ERETZ is often flat for many honest observers.

I’m drawn to similar thinking when I hear criticisms about the ancient Hebrews considering the ERETZ to be unmoved. Every engineers who has ever built a foundation for a building starts from the presupposition that the ground is a general stable, stationary, unmoving surface which makes a good starting point for construction. The ancients were very familiar with earthquakes, so critics are being silly when claiming that those “foolish ancient peoples” thought the ERETZ could never ever be moved. Is it not possible the ancients were making the same sort of generalizations in common speech that we do?

I make these points even while freely acknowledging that I have little doubt that the authors of the Bible embraced ancient cosmologies and mistaken notions about things which science would describe and explain much differently taken. I’m not bothered by that----so don’t assume that I’m trying to blindly defend every ancient notion found in the Biblical text.


(Jon Garvey) #12

Jay

Job appears to have some kind of grasp of the entire water cycle! One relevant bit:

Job 36.27-28:

“He draws up the drops of water, which distill as rain to the streams;
the clouds pour down their moisture and abundant showers fall on mankind.”

And in Job 26:

He wraps up the waters in his clouds,
yet the clouds do not burst under their weight.

Clearly it would be a stretch to assume this means a scientific grasp of the vapour state and liquid state - but all you need to do is walk up a mountain (or wait for a foggy day) and it’s pretty clear the clouds are wet. Where I am (600 feet up) we’re surrounded by the upper waters every few days. It’s wet when that happens, and dry when it doesn’t.

Once one divests oneself of the assumption that Genesis is talking about a boundless watery universe, and instead think of the eretz being covered in ocean, with a surface, it’s not too much of an effort to think of that ocean being split, and the upper part forming the clouds which, in some remarkable way, stay up and yet drop rain.

Thinking about it this afternoon, I realised that the customary interpretation (solid roof to separate the upper and lower waters) gives no good account of why there’s a big, unmentioned void underneath the sky, without water in it. Not to mention it forgets to mention clouds at all.


(Christy Hemphill) #13

Yes, some people say that, but that isn’t really my concern. My concern is that in approaches to the Bible that start with the categories “truth” and “error,” you run into lots of problems with the nature of authority, the task of interpretation, and methods of application.

I think if you start with the goal of “defending inerrancy” you end up in contorted places, because “inerrancy” (at least how it is presented in North American fundamentalist circles) is an artificial construct imposed on the Bible. I wouldn’t make defending it a hill to die on. Better to focus on defending the authority of Scripture and the integrity of the gospel.

Michael Bird has a good discussion of inerrancy and infallibility in Evangelical Theology, chapter 6.3.5.2. You should see if you could get it on inter-library loan or something. He is Reformed, but also conversant with post-modern philosophical concerns and mainstream and liberal biblical scholarship. It’s important to know that what conservative biblical scholars mean by inerrancy is not what it has traditionally been understood to mean by pastors and lay people in fundamentalist circles.


(Christy Hemphill) #14

I guess I’m unclear on why it’s so important to tease out this distinction. Does it really matter whether it is most accurate to say they believed the world was flat, perceived the world was flat, or described the world as flat? It seems to me like semantic gymnastics designed to preserve some other claim. Why is it important that the ancients may not have actually conceptualized the earth as flat in the way Jay is describing? What do you lose if they did?


(Jon Garvey) #15

Update: The Hebrew Bible has two words translated “vapour” in the KJV. “Ed” is used for vapour in the Job 36 passage, and “mist” elsewhere. “Nasi” is also used for vapour rising upwards, but also for clouds.

Scientifically speaking, of course, visible clouds aren’t strictly water vapour - that’s invisible and in the atmosphere. The Hebrews would have needed some unlikely insider knowledge to speak about that. But the clouds we see are water droplets, which make you wet if you walk through them. The ancients would have been aware of that. They’d also have been aware of the rather mysterious arrival of dew without rain - and the Bible talks of it coming down from heaven.

Incidentally the word sometimes translated “trapdoors” in heaven is actually a word for “window”, but also for “lattice net” (but not a door). So the clunky idea of floodgates letting in the boundless abyss may rather carry the idea of a meshwork containing water.

All kinds of possibilities - many fit well with a phenomenological picture: and most not so well with any particular cosmological scheme.


(Jon Garvey) #16

I don’t lose anything much - but I kind of like to see what makes most sense in context, and what I’ve read of the ancient world makes me think that they just didn’t think of “the world” (or rather the earth, heavens, firmament etc) in the kind astronomical-view cosmological way that’s natural to us. Even more they didn’t think of the world the way Victorians thought ancient people ought to think of it.

The more I can learn to think myself into their shoes (by reading the text, checking out the vocabulary, comparing with other ancient sources and what’s been learned about them), the more I find I can learn from them, rather than condescending to them.

The first step in exegesis is challenging ones own presuppositions - it gets to be a habit after a few years.


(George Brooks) #17

@Jon_Garvey,

I think we have a VERY good idea of what the ANE cosmology was. The Hebrew were part of ANE … and they didn’t start developing new creative notions of the cosmos until they made contact with the Zoroastrians.


(Jon Garvey) #18

My problem is between the “VERY good idea” that “we” have, and what the scholars I have read actually say. They point out that Babylonian cosmology isn’t even consistent with itself, let alone with Sumerian, Egyptian, Canaanite and other surrounding cultures (which all have to be reconstructed by interpretation of fragmentary texts that are usually about something other than cosmology).

Both Lambert and Horowitz say that there is no idea of a domed sky in Babylonian literature - a series of flat layers (of variable and inconsistent number) is what is actually described. Egyptian cosmology is decidedly parochial, and so equally inconsistent… the “world” whose origin they’re decribing is “Heliopolis” or some other local cult centre. That is probably true elsewhere, and is why I have suggested above that the very idea that the Bible has in mind any view of the shape of the whole world may well be anachronistic, because it’s not unlikely the writers had never troubled themselves with such matters either.

All this is what led Biologos’s own John H Walton to say, many years ago:

“In summary, then, it is difficult to discuss comparisons between Israelite and Mesopotamian literature concerning creation of the cosmos because the disparity is so marked.”

To be honest, I give more weight to a conclusion like his, consistent with what I have read elsewhere, than to your slam-dunk endorsement of a one-size fits all Victorian version of “What ancient people all believed”.


(George Brooks) #19

@Jon_Garvey

I don’t believe I ever used that kind of wording. The Victorian version of the Flat Earth was much more sophisticated than the ANE view of the Cosmos. After all, they Victorians knew the Earth orbited the Sun.

I said the Victorian movement proved that people could arrive at very bad conclusions using Biblical interpretation. But we knew that, right?


(Jon Garvey) #20

As regards the “Victorian ANE view”, you have to remember a couple of things. First, there’s a “founder effect”, in that all these texts (apart from Genesis, whose interpretation had a long tradition) were newly discovered, so the first “modern” understanding came from those with nineteenth century assumptions, and coloured everything afterwards.

Second, those Victorian assumptions included a Copernican cosmology, which saw the earth as a lump in an effectively infinite space full of immaterial “aether”. Mediaeval people, by contrast, saw the earth as a lump in a finite universe maybe 90 million miles across, the outer surface being God’s (immaterial) heaven, with nothing beyond. They’d have never read a phrase like “the deep” or “Tiamat the salt water from which everything came” and thought of an infinite ocean, like a Newtonian Universe but full of water. But the Victorians did.

Similarly, once the earth has to be floating in such a boundless deep, it’s got to have a physical shape (because Victorians were very mechanically minded - a world with undefined boundaries, or only describing Mesopotamia or Egypt, wasn’t going to work for them), even though you also assume that “the ancients” believed in a flat earth - in fact you even believe mediaeval people believed in a flat earth.

So you have to round it off at the bottom, include a few reservoirs and, in the Bible’s case, a kind of cave called “Sheol”, all with your infinite ocean underneath. Then you must cover it at the top to stop the water getting in with a dome… and so on. You end up with what is basically a Copernican universe in antique costume.

Turn that into a lithograph, and you’ve set the standard model for “the” ancient universe until someone like Lambert looks at the texts more closely, with more cultural knowledge, and starts from scratch, with entirely different conclusions.